Still I Had to Make a Start

The title is from a series of essays written by Rabindranath Tagore, who I consulted today because I was wondering about how to balance ideals with the practical realities that face one. I was also reading the latest post on The Edithorial about how her take on 'Stoic Week' was attacked; one wonders again at how social media is so anti-dialogue. But just as one is about to lose hope in our age, one realises that at the end of Edith Hall's post is a link to her own Classics and Class project - the dialogue continues, and online. To be a strong thinker is to admit all that is stacked against one, but to make one's start.
An interesting point that Edith raises is that, if I understood correctly, it is not enough to revivify certain Stoic principles, i.e., the overall principles of one school of thought (vs. the various details when we compare the many texts of said school), because one single school necessarily delimits its view of man. I suppose this is true and marks the great attraction in Hadot's introductory books to ancient philosophy, because while he shows the differences in the schools, he also shows what they shared in common: silent contemplation; 'spiritual' mottoes (so different from the skin-deep tattooed spiritualism of today); παιδεία; apprenticeship for death; casting off the Glaucosian mud, seaweed, shells: freeing ourselves from unnecessary desire; a λόγος system, dialogue...
Hadot writes, "We have tried to reply to those who, like Friedmann, ask themselves the question: how is it possible to practice spiritual exercises in the twentieth century? We have tried to do so by recalling the existence of a highly rich and varied Western tradition. There can be no question, of course, of mechanically imitating stereotyped schemas. After all, did not Socrates and Plato urge their disciples to find the solutions they needed by themselves?" He writes we cannot afford to ignore the lessons of the past; to illustrate, Stoicism and Epicureanism may be taken to correspond to antipodes of our inner life: "tension and relaxation, duty and serenity, moral conscience and the joy of existence."
Today's philosopher is the antipode to yesterday's slave owner. So over to Tagore, wishing to 'solve' the state of the villages: "Their mental life is no longer enlivened with music and ballads and tales." I'd add, most village life is now poisoned with inverse-reality shows of argument and bestiality - many of which feature villagers departing for the ersatz fairyland of fame. The "plain and simple fare of tradition" - which if I might add do contain a dose of the beast, sometimes decontextualized and misunderstood by the father of world lit, Goethe - "constitute those organic elements with which to enrich [the villager's] mind and heart. Without them life ceases to be worth living. The sad anomaly is that our cities hardly make for social contacts in the real sense ... The rural people cannot catch our sight [of what college students depending on European scholarship to tell them about their own villages say] because we regard them as ... small people."

I have now found two visions - both written by East/West scholars of international repute - for retaining the culture and livelihood of villages that involve education and improved agriculture. Neither of these visions was ever allowed to see the light of day. One wonders how the values shifted so suddenly. Yesterday I picked up Adler's Speedboat, which I take to be a book written by what happens to a sensitive soul thrown into a culture where mores were thrown into a Bakhtinian centrifuge, one imagines just such a washing machine. One ends up with an account that is at once honest, revealing, and a little scary.
She reminds us of a time when "personalities" circled, who indeed did have personalities, as compared with today's socialites whose only talent is the Boorstinian ability to be famous for being famous. She describes (pp.81-3) how education changed in an account that made me want to both laugh and cry (departments fighting over who gets which author, blaming open admissions for any failures, inventing projects to keep enrollment high, but projects that sound rather...). As for crime: now, "the jig was never up."
In that section of the book, she shows how language began to change and fail. "'Agony' could mean anything - usually, pending indictment; physical agony in hospitals, was called discomfort ... 'Serene' and 'out of touch with reality' meant a given speaker trying to clear himself by intimating that the boss was crazy."
To make a start today I think we would need to reclaim λόγος and foster trust - as Tagore did with the villagers "to win the friendship and affection of the villagers and cultivators by taking real interest in all that concerns their live and welfare and by making a lively effort to assist them in solving their most pressing problems." Except that we see that words are tied to an "economic moment". Imagine it were a play. Resolution would come from economy for the home and not all the televised shouting among people wearing trendy clothes, manufactured, actually, by new slave labour.
To train people and enable them to return home to work in villages, to reduce the "pull of the city" which was a term we learned about in geography all those decades ago. That may sound classist, but I mean it in the sense that teaching experience shows that not everyone wants to think about society, most want to think just of their own lives. Look at how crowded the city is, people forget to be respectful and just push like the animals of beef. Yes, this is an ageless concern, but no, that is not an argument to abandon the attempt. How is it possible to be a man in the twenty-first century? I'm supposed to add woman, but to my mind, that would take away from our shared responsibility.


  1. The gigantizing of cities is dramatized as irreversible in some sci-fi. One recurrent motif of recent film gives us the Earth as the ghettoized remnant that is left behind. The poor are there, the rest have moved on. Not a new idea - Asimov wrote of it decades ago (Caves of Steel). The implicit idea of commercial TV in the US is that the world of poor is enabled through this magic of media to gaze upon what it will not have, unless it wins American Idol.

    1. I've never looked down on sci-fi, for it seems to deal with many social issues that other genres no longer touch. What a serious vision/hyperbole...
      There's a book with an interesting thesis about the media gaze and the undesirable, called Cannibal Cultures by Deborah Root.


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